Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front, 1914-1918

Richard Holmes

Introduced by Max Hastings

The First World War is brought to life with first-hand accounts and comprehensive research in this compelling two-volume set.

Published price: US$ 135.00

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Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front, 1914-1918

The army that fought the First World War was perhaps the greatest collective endeavour that Britain has ever seen. Five million men were mobilised – regular army, volunteers and conscripts – from all walks of life. Bank clerks, tram drivers, mill workers and farmers were transformed into gunners, signallers, army cooks and tank drivers.

Richard Holmes, celebrated military historian and ex-soldier, focuses this authoritative work on the ordinary soldier – the ‘Tommy’ – who fought on the Western Front. Widely considered a landmark study, this edition is illustrated with a wealth of ephemera and newly researched photography.

Production Details

Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front, 1914-1918 book
  • Bound in printed and blocked buckram
  • Set in Fournier with Akzidenz Grotesk display
  • 784 pages in total
  • 24 pages of black and white photographs with a frontispiece per volume, 3 maps and integrated illustrations
  • Printed endpapers
  • Blocked slipcase
  • 10" x 6¾"

Voices from the First World War

The British Army that fought in the Great War was the first largely literate and articulate army, producing not just the celebrated war poets but also the powerful writing of the ordinary soldier. Through these unique first-hand accounts – letters, diaries and memoirs – Holmes lets the soldiers speak for themselves, brilliantly interpreting their testimony to glimpse the truth of their lives.

Charting the disintegration of the Western Front, from tidy hamlets and verdant forests to a landscape as ‘bare as a man’s hand’, Tommy also looks at the development of the war, examining how advances in weaponry changed the role of the soldier on the ground, how trench warfare actually worked, and the evolving chain of command.

The great machine of war

Holmes describes the great machine of war in fascinating detail, and demonstrates how it took ordinary men from field and factory, and changed their lives. We are also given surprising glimpses of the more human side of the conflict: the camaraderie, the food and daily routine, the trench love affairs and the ubiquitous moustache.

As well as the traditional horrors associated with it, trench life had other, more unexpected risks. Lieutenant Roe reports that one unfortunate private woke up ‘with a fully grown rat swinging from his nose with his teeth in the cartilage’. He continues: ‘Clearly I could not shoot the rat with my revolver in such a confined space. There was only one solution, so I borrowed Appleford’s bayonet and got on with the job.’

Drinking could also be a problem, with soldiers saving up their tots of rum and enjoying them all at once. When one drunk man repeatedly shouted ‘Over the top! We’re coming for you!’ just before an early morning attack, another soldier reported that ‘When I went along the next day I found him, very quiet. Someone had stuck a bayonet into him.’

Sergeant Charles Arnold notes: ‘Tommy Atkins – full private – is, when all is said and done, the one who won the war. Of this man little was heard, possibly because he had a habit of going into places a thousand strong and coming out a remnant of a hundred and fifty or so. Dead men tell no tales of their own glory.’

An outstanding edition of a remarkable book

This two-volume set features striking photographic bindings, four maps and endpapers printed with two fascinating pieces of ephemera: Siegfried Sassoon’s notes on what to do during a gas attack, and a parody of the field service postcard. The slipcase is blocked with an image of the Silver War Medal.

Acclaimed historian Max Hastings has provided a new introduction for Tommy, of which he writes: ‘Few better portraits have been penned of the experience of the soldier in the First World War, its successes as well as its failures, its moments of fulfilment amid a host of personal tragedies.’

'Every picture tells a story'

The faces are a mix of old and young: youths in their first enlistment, and recalled reservists who have wet their moustaches in canteens from Dublin to Delhi. Indeed, moustaches are almost universal, as the only excuse for not having one is a boyish inability to grow hair on the upper lip. King’s Regulations leave no room for doubt: ‘The hair of the head will be kept short. The chin and the lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip. Whiskers, if worn, will be of moderate length.’ Military uniform has deep psychological symbolism, and amongst its traditional functions are a desire to make its wearer look taller (hence high shakos and bearskin caps); broader (epaulettes); and more virile (codpieces, sporrans, tight overalls – perhaps reinforced, toreador-style, with a well-placed folded handkerchief – facial hair and pigtails). When two officers in the Accrington Pals shave off their moustaches before going home on leave in November 1915 Lieutenant Colonel Rickman bellowed: ‘Get off my parade and don’t come back until they’ve grown again.’

An extract from Tommy (Part 5: Steel and Fire)

About Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes (1946–2011) was a leading British military historian, best-known as a writer and television presenter, whose work focused on the roles and lives of frontline troops. He wrote more than twenty books, including several bestsellers: Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of the Horse and Musket (2001), Wellington, the Iron Duke (2002), Sahib: The British Soldier in India, (1750–1914) (2005), Marlborough (2009) and Soldiers: Army Lives and Loyalties from Redcoats to Dusty Warriors (published posthumously in 2011). He wrote and presented several television documentaries, including nine series for the BBC (Battlefields, War Walks, The Western Front and others), and regularly led tours of historic battle sites.

He combined writing and broadcasting with a career as an academic, with posts at Sandhurst (1969–86) and then at Cranfield, where he was Professor of Military and Security Studies until 2009. He was also Britain’s first reservist brigadier and was Colonel of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. He was awarded the CBE in 1998.

About Max Hastings

Max Hastings is a British author, journalist and broadcaster. During his early career as a foreign correspondent for BBC television and the London Evening Standard, he reported on conflicts around the world, including Vietnam and the 1982 South Atlantic war. Among his many books are Battle for the Falklands (co-author Simon Jenkins, 1983), Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944–5 (2007), All Hell Let Loose (2001), Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War, 1914 (2013) and The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerillas, 1939–45 (2015).

In 2008, Max Hastings was awarded the RUSI Duke of Westminster Medal for his lifetime contribution to Military Literature, and in 2012 the Pritzker Military Library of Chicago presented him with its Literary Award for lifetime achievement. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he was knighted in 2002.

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